Root Cure

photo by Brad Maule,

Now we know as a matter of fact what the street has been telling us: this is an impoverished nation. In Philadelphia its old news, but even here, close observers of the urban poor are shocked by the depth of hunger and deprivation.Half of children living in Philadelphia’s first congressional district (river wards) suffer food insecurity.

The very poor often depend on the informal economy–globally, the billion urban squatters certainly do–but one part of that equation in Philadelphia has been disappearing. With a loss of more than 250 community gardens since 1994, localized food production is faltering just when it is needed the most. In fact, community gardening grew out of the literal (and figurative) economic hole created by whipsaw deindustrialization in the 1970s, attenuating collapse of whole neighborhoods. In 1994, community gardens produced nearly $2 million in food for residents and non-profits that serve the poor.

Now, after shifts in congressional funding (leading to the termination of Penn State’s urban gardening program, among other programs) and changes in city land policy that deter small-plot gardens, the 500-600 gardens have dwindled by half, or more. This is a fundamental loss, considering that even a small garden–think Las Parcelas in Norris Square–can produce $10,000 worth of food in one season.

Of course, as Mark Bittman noted in the New York Times, Philadelphia is the pace-setter in urban food policy. The Food Trust is finding ways to put fresh, locally-raised food in the bellies of school children and Tuesday it debuted a farmers market at the Frankford El terminal.

But in the next several months we’re going to see a renewed conversation on the uses of vacant land city-wide. There’s more of it, certainly, than in 1994. We’re going to hear about reforestation and pop-up initiatives, but oughtn’t we–in the city of John Bartram and Ernesta Ballard–also consider a return to our roots, and encourage more people to grow their own food?

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
In Sharswood, Effort To Save Dox Thrash House Gains Momentum

In Sharswood, Effort To Save Dox Thrash House Gains Momentum

March 20, 2018  |  News

As modern urban renewal continues to erase African-American history in North Philly, one group works against the odds to preserve a renowned Philadelphia artist's legacy. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the story > more

New 40th Street Trolley Portal Design Dull On Arrival

New 40th Street Trolley Portal Design Dull On Arrival

March 19, 2018  |  Vantage

University City District's beautification of the 40th Street Trolley Portal was high on concept, but appears to have fumbled on delivery. Contributor Ann de Forest has the full review > more

Confusion And Quibbling At Mayor's Preservation Task Force Meeting

Confusion And Quibbling At Mayor’s Preservation Task Force Meeting

March 15, 2018  |  News

Mayor Kenney's Historic Preservation Task Force convened today following the release of a draft of a summary of summaries on the state of preservation in Philadelphia. Logistical bickering and sticker activities ensued. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Remembering Philly's 1967 School Walkout & The Attack On Teen Activism

Remembering Philly’s 1967 School Walkout & The Attack On Teen Activism

March 13, 2018  |  Vantage

On the eve of the national student walkout honoring the victims of the Parkland shooting, Michael Bixler takes a look back at November 17, 1967 when teenage activists demonstrating for equal rights became the target of a violent police attack > more

Oscar's Tavern Still Parties Like It's 1972

Oscar’s Tavern Still Parties Like It’s 1972

March 12, 2018  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow saddles up to the bar at Oscar's Tavern where the spirit of "Old Philadelphia" is as effervescent as their lagers > more

Back When We Burned Trash On The Delaware River

Back When We Burned Trash On The Delaware River

March 9, 2018  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. takes us on a whirlwind exploration of Philadelphia's notorious garbage problem, starting with the long-gone East Central Incinerator at Penn's Landing and then sailing around the globe before returning to today's trashy situation > more